Majority of refugee women traumatised by violence

Syrian refugees, Parc Maximilien camp. Brussels, September 2015. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

Violence against women and girls in refugee camps remains a fact of life, due to the lack of a binding protection strategy and the member states’ delay in implementing the EU Asylum Directive. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Europe is currently facing the most serious refugee crisis since the end of World War II. However, for many refugees, escaping the conflict and turmoil of their homelands does not necessarily mean the end of their suffering or hardships. In particular, women and girls are often subjugated to violence or sexual assault in refugee camps and accommodation.

Although EU member states are obligated to transpose the rules laid down by the so-called Reception Directive, which governs standards of living and protective measures, Germany still lacks a binding protection system for vulnerable new arrivals.

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Whether it is by other residents, security personnel or partners, “attacks on women are not considered worthy of calling the police to the camp. It is treated as a minor incident,” said social worker Nivedita Prasad from the Alice Salomon University in Berlin. The level of protection provided to residents of such facilities is very much dependent on the goodwill of the site’s managers, she added.

Inken Stern, an asylum legal expert, highlighted how bad the situation can be for women, estimating that 50-60% of female refugees have been traumatised at some point. “Many women leave their homes traumatised and then embark on a dangerous journey, in which they are vulnerable to prostitution rings and traffickers, with violence often the end result. They then end up in accommodation that has no privacy,” she said.

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More than a quarter of the world’s 60 million refugees are women and girls aged from 15 to 49. Of all the refugees currently located on the so-called Balkan route, 80% are women and children.

For many of them, their ordeal and exposure to violence begins during their flight from the threat of that same violence, said Bernd Bornhorst, chairman of VENRO, an umbrella organisation of German development NGOs. “We have to ensure that separate sleeping quarters and bathrooms are provided at reception centres, as well as in Germany,” he added. The same measures must be made available in refugee camps as well.

Young women and single mothers are most at risk of attack from camp staff and security personnel. Nevertheless, Stern said that many women still take the risk, despite the threat of violence being well known. “Due to the violence they encounter in their homelands, many women are unwilling to lodge complaints as they fear putting their right to asylum at risk,” Stern told

At the same time, many issues of security are overlooked in refugee camps, according to report issued by Women in Exile, an initiative organised by refugee women in Germany. “Nobody checks whether men and women are kept separate in toilets and showers. That is why many women do not dare use those facilities,” 27-year-old Amal told Amal, who did not want to give her full name, has had first-hand experience of the conditions provided in refugee camps and accommodation.

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Judge Heike Rabe, from the German Institute of Human Rights (DIMR), explained that money and bureaucracy are two of the main obstacles to providing women with better protection. Women, as well as any other individuals that are applying for asylum, have to fulfil certain criteria to get a residence permit in most of Germany’s regions, which normally require the applicant to stay in the same place for three months. “Whether they go to a women’s refuge or leave the place where they have been attacked is not a decision in their own hands,” said Rabe. That remains the decision of the authorities.

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To provide women and other asylum seekers that are classed as “particularly vulnerable” with better protection, implementing the EU Reception Directive is of utmost importance, Rabe told However, its implementation may necessitate costs that some member states are unwilling or unable to pay, as its full implementation would mean changes to health care and benefit systems.

Member states were given two years to implement the new law, but due to the fact that its provisions had not been completely transposed by the July 2015 deadline, the European Commission opened infringement proceedings against 19 EU countries, including two against Germany.

However, the issues of gender violence and protection standards were “completely underdeveloped” in Germany even in 2015, Rabe added. Immigration authorities are often unprepared to provide facilities in which men and women are separated. Due to the fact that women live in male-dominated accommodation, more information, protection and counselling are absolutely necessary, urged Rabe.

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